Interview with The Seventh Fire Director Jack Pettibone Riccobono

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American filmmaker Jack Pettibone Riccobono’s debut feature The Seventh Fire, an eye opening, unsettling yet highly compassionate documentary focussing on Native American gang culture, was released in the UK on Friday 13th May (read our review here). We spoke to Jack ahead of its London screenings to discuss the uniqueness of the film’s contributors, screening the film at the White House, his cinematic approach to documentary subjects and bringing visibility to often invisible issues affecting Native American communities. 

You’ve spoken about your approach to the film being character driven and immersive. Robert Brown is a soulful man with a traumatic past, Kevin Fineday is a troubled youth with uncertain future. They are vital to the film, how did you find those contributors?

I met Rob on my very first research trip in October 2010. I had made a short documentary on the same reservation, and when we started to develop The Seventh Fire I went back to the tribal college and talked with the class. Rob was in the class that day. He came up to me afterwards and said, “You want to learn about native gangs? Why don’t you come talk to me?” He had this physicality, this charisma and the ability to speak about his situation with depth and reflection, whilst still being trapped in those circumstances. That made him a very unique subject. When I met him I felt like Rob was someone who could support a feature project.

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Working with Rob, we saw him as a collaborator throughout production. He’s very intuitive and understood the process very quickly. He was able to facilitate access to places and people we wouldn’t have had on our own. There were scenarios where he’d be wearing a wireless microphone and enter a house, and the people inside would start talking about robbing us of our equipment! Then we would hear Rob very artfully steer the conversation in another direction.

With Kevin it took a little longer. We met him about a year into filming. He brought a lot of energy to the project. He was 17 when we first met him and was at a very different stage of his life to Rob, being young and never having been to prison. He was kind of at this crossroads of trying to figure out what would happen with his life. Seventh Fire Kevin

After screening The Seventh Fire at the White House, you participated in a panel discussion on criminal justice reform with federal officials, journalists, and academics. It’s not something that many filmmakers get to do, to make a film that has that level of interest from government. How was that experience?

Yeah, it was very unexpected and an amazing opportunity. That was the first time that Kevin appeared with the film in public. He’s 21 now and doing really well. He has two full time jobs, he moved off the reservation and he’s living in a city now in Minnesota. And Rob got released from prison at the beginning of September, and now he’s working in the drug counselling field.

The film has this combination of issues that have been the focus for President Obama, especially in his final year in office. He is the first sitting president to visit a federal prison and only the third sitting president to visit a Native American reservation, and there’s a bill currently moving through Congress, that, if it passes, could be the last major piece of legislation he signs. Criminal justice reform is a huge issue in the U.S. right now, and the Native American part of that is often left out of the conversation.

One of the most surprising and moving parts of the film is when Rob is in prison, the drugs are leaving his system and he reads his poem “Back Again.”

Yes. One of the compelling things about Rob is  his creative outlet in his writing. He’s able to find a point of escape from prison by pouring it into his poetry and writing. That was one of the things that made him so special as a subject, that he’s able to express what he’s going through. That moment when you hear him read “Back Again” in the holding cell, it has a lot of emotional impact.

We were the first independent film crew to gain access to the Minnesota Department of Corrections. That institutionalisation plays such a major role in Rob’s life, and to capture his experience behind bars was very important to the story. You see a lot of films where the prison door kind of slams shut and then you fade to black. You have no real sense of what it’s like to actually be in there. For us it was really important that we show that part of his experience and what it’s like behind bars.

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These are experiences that many people don’t realise are affecting Native American communities. They’re very underreported issues from a very underrepresented group, but dealt with in a very objective and compassionate way. How important was it to you dealing with Rob’s individual experiences in a way that could stand in for a wider community?  

That was a huge part of making the film. I approach filmmaking as a storyteller, so I’m really drawn to interesting and dramatic stories. That being said film is an incredible tool for opening people’s eyes, spreading awareness and finding points of connection between us all as human beings, taking us into worlds we haven’t seen before. Many of us will never visit the White Earth Reservation ourselves, but it’s important we know what’s going on there. This is a very intimate story focussed on Rob and Kevin’s experiences, but resonates across all of Indian country in the US and Canada, with similar issues affecting indigenous people in Scandinavia, Australia and New Zealand. So there are themes in the film that are universal. It’s really a film about humanity and all of our struggles.

Some images in the film are quite shocking, for instance, mothers taking drugs within feet of their babies. One of the film’s strengths is it is very objective and non-judgemental. When recording images like that, how important is it to remain objective?

As a human being certainly it was difficult to be in some of those situations. You feel for the people involved and you want things to be better. As a filmmaker I had to maintain that objectivity. It’s a complicated relationship, especially with our main subjects who we knew over many years. We care about these guys and want them to do well, and we hope the film will bring about different opportunities for Rob and Kevin, and also for the greater community. But in terms of the reality of some of those moments, they are shocking. The casual everyday nature of those activities is particularly shocking, because the behaviour has been normalised to such a degree.

But it was really important to communicate that. The whole Reservation system was created in part to move communities out of view, and this really is an invisible community in many respects. You almost never see images of contemporary Native Americans in the mainstream media. Many people around the world still think that Indians live in tepees. The only imagery they have of Native Americans has to do with the Hollywood version of American Indians, which is still perpetuated in stories to this day. That kind of imagery is all-pervasive, and so it’s important to shake people awake. It’s a very diverse community that has hundreds of thousands of people living in all places. The Seventh Fire is by no means the definitive film about contemporary Native American life, but it points to issues happening in Native communities across the U.S.

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The film came together after 14 shoots over 2 and ½ years, and took 4 years in total. What were the biggest challenges in making the film?

It’s an old story but funding was extraordinarily difficult at every stage. We did not receive any public money to support the making of the film. So it was a long process and a labour of love, and we were able to put together a very small group of passionate people who poured their hearts and souls into making the film.

The other really major challenge was when Rob was sentenced to go back to prison. We were in the middle of production and had no idea whether we would have access to him from that point forward. We spent many months building up a relationship with the Minnesota Department of Corrections so ultimately we were able to gain access to Rob and be able to film him behind bars.

We were also in the edit for about a year, a full time edit for about five months, and then feedback screenings and making changes. Our lead editor was Andrew Ford, who is British and now lives in New York. We worked very intensively to shape the film. We approached it like a narrative fictional film with a three-act structure, mapping out particular story arcs for Rob and Kevin. Through that process even though we certainly knew Rob was this charismatic and layered person with a lot of depth, we realised we had to position him early on as kind of the “bad guy.” In doing that the audience is able to see this incredible transformation that he goes through, where by the end of the film, he’s in such a different place from the beginning. We realised that arc for him was important. By contrast with Kevin, when you meet him he’s young, 17 year old, semi-innocent kind of kid, and as the film progresses he’s sliding deeper into the gang life. Although that journey and that depiction is certainly a truthful one, that was something we really shaped through the edit. BurningCar_TheSeventhFire

You mentioned the cinematic quality of the structure. The visuals are also highly cinematic. The cinematography is very powerful; as well as being an intimate film is has great scope. How important was it to have something as visually rich as it was thematically and character driven?

That was crucial. From the beginning I really wanted the film to feel immersive and visually cinematic. We approached the shooting it very much with an eye towards how could we edit those moments into scenes. The other part of it was to show the natural landscape. The land is very important to Native Americans, and it also draws out this surreal situation where you basically have these ‘world ghettos’. Most people associate gangs with cities, prisons and with very urban landscapes. Here you have this beautiful natural world and in the middle of it you have this chaos and this very stark wasteland. The contrast between those two places was something we were really trying to pull out for the audience feel.

As there’s a lot of intense emotional content in the film, and I think it’s very important that the audience take a breath, and have the opportunity to process what they’re seeing. I didn’t want to use onscreen text or narration. I wanted people to be drawn into this world and go on this journey with these two men. I think audiences are savvier now and they don’t want to be told what to think about certain issues. They want to come to some conclusions on their own. That makes the film challenging for some viewers, but that will hopefully give it a more lasting impact and be one of those films that you think about maybe the next day, the next week, or a month after you’ve seen it.

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The film is presented by Executive Producers Natalie Portman and Terrence Malick. How did that come about?

It was related to trying to find financing for the film. While we were in production I had the opportunity to show Natalie a sample of footage, and she was really taken by it. Like a lot of Americans she didn’t know much about this community, but she thought there was an opportunity here to raise awareness about these issues. She had worked very closely with Terrence Malick and knew of his passion for Native American issues and Midwestern stories, and also felt he would respond to the visual approach we had. We sent him a sample, and he wrote a really nice letter of support for us. Then once we had a rough cut we went back to him and he agreed to come on board as an Executive Producer. He watched several cuts of the film and gave us feedback, which was incredible. Both Natalie and Mr Malick were definitely creatively involved, but with Mr Malick we thought his association could really help the film reach a wider cinephile audience with the filmmaking style.

This project must have opened up some exciting doors. What are you working on next?

Absolutely. I’m developing a narrative script right now, and also a couple of different series concepts, so I’m definitely interested in having my next directing project be a scripted narrative. But I’m also producing another documentary so I hope to be able to work on both sides. I think that there’s a really interesting way that documentary work can inform scripted work and vice versa.

Thanks for talking to us!

The Seventh Fire is out now in selected London cinemas. For ticket information click at Bertha DocHouse click here. For ticket information at Picturehouse Central click here.

David is a filmmaker, artist and failed astronaut from Birmingham, UK. His short films have been shown on BBC TV, at the BFI and at BAFTA. Only bats and small dogs are likely to have seen them. He has written for the stage and has exhibited artwork in Birmingham's municipal art gallery. Few can correctly guess his age, to his occasional annoyance.